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Assessing the Threat

The comments of counterterrorism authorities, and others, drawn from FRONTLINE's extended interviews conducted for "The Enemy Within." Could there be another sleeper cell within the U.S.? And what kind - Al Qaeda operatives, or homegrown terrorists motivated by Al Qaeda ideology?

+ John Brennan


Former director, National Counterterrorism Center

+ Read the full interview

... [W]e may be entering a more dangerous time now. There may be operational activities going on that we're totally unaware of. I was very concerned about what happened in London in July of [2005], the railway attacks that resulted in several dozen deaths, when four individuals who were U.K. citizens, born and raised in Leeds, carried out attacks against the British subway system. They were under the radar screen of the British police. ...

That could be happening here in the United States. Something could be taking place in a small town or city in the Midwest or in the Northeast [among] individuals who have decided, for whatever reason, that they're going to carry out an attack, that they're going to blow themselves up because of what Al Qaeda stands for.

You mean the enemy is among us.

It could be. The enemy very well may be within our midst, because bin Laden's message and his threat is not just who he can send to the United States and deploy to carry out an attack. It's to encourage, to energize, to activate ... extremist Islamic sentiments, to carry out acts on his behalf. ...

... The bureau has said there hasn't been a cell structure or a network uncovered in the U.S. -- maybe individuals. [The] real danger may be homegrown groups similar to London. Would you agree with that?

You know, the term "sleeper cell" is an interesting one. I've heard people say there have been no sleeper cells identified in the United States. Well, a sleeper cell by definition is sleeping; it is awaiting instruction, direction, authorization. So I believe that there are some individuals here in the United States that are operating on behalf of Al Qaeda. ...

The biggest threat would be something like a WMD [weapons-of-mass-destruction] attack of some kind?

That's the concern that keeps me up at night at times [and] when I was the head of the National Counter[terrorism] Center: what I didn't know; what our intelligence might not have been able to detect; what might be going on in some laboratory here in the United States. We saw what happened with anthrax in the month after 9/11 and how that gripped this country into a panic.

There are certain scenarios when you think about weapons of mass destruction ... that can really cause mass panic in the United States, which would have devastating economic consequences, devastating political and other consequences. ... The real potential damage is just mind-boggling as far as the scale. 9/11 was a tragedy; it was awful, but there's a lot worse that Al Qaeda could do. ...

+ Thomas Kean


9/11 Commission co-chair

+ Read the full interview

... Five years later, what keeps you up at night about this?

The thing that keeps me up at night more than anything else is probably the worry of a terrorist with a nuclear device in one of our major cities. ... The effect of that on our democracy, on our economy, on our way of life would be so catastrophic. ...

But when I go around ... and I say, "Is there any evidence in the last five years that any group or any individual has acquired any kind of nuclear device or even radioactive materials and attempted to bring them into the United States?," they say no.

Well, they don't have the evidence. That worries me, too, because I don't know whether they've done it yet. I know that bin Laden has said he wants to do it. ... We know that he's been trying to get a hold of these devices, and his people have been trying to get a hold of these devices. We know that in the ex-Soviet Union, there are nuclear devices and rich uranium that's guarded by rusty chains and one soldier, in many cases. ...

Once they get a hold of the enriched uranium, you can find out how to build one of these devices on the Internet. And ... if you put a lead shield over it now, the devices they now use [to detect radiation on the border], ... won't penetrate that lead shield. So you can drive one in with a station wagon. ...

... Every six months there's the announcement about some case: The president said we've disrupted terrorist cells in Buffalo, N.Y., and Negroponte just recently testified and said, "We have evidence of Al Qaeda, ... a sleeper cell in Lodi, Calif." But when you look at these cases carefully, it doesn't look like these are people who are about to do anything.

No. That's the problem. When you say "disrupt a plot," the second thing is you look at it and say, "Was the plot real?" Frankly, you've got a lot of nuts in this country, unfortunately, who are always talking about doing this or that. The bomb threats ... are all around New York and Washington and other places. So when you say you disrupted something, you've got to say, "Is it real?" Now, without access to classified information, without really looking at what that case was, it's very hard to make that determination.

You're skeptical.

Yes, I am. ...

... When the government speaks today, it seems to include a Black Muslim prison gang as an example of imminent problems. ...

Yeah, well, I don't know why. I mean, it might be a threat; you can't say there couldn't be threats, traditional threats, from all sorts of sources within the country, going to the Haymarket explosion in Chicago back two centuries ago. We've had anarchists; we've had people trying to do harm for one reason or another.

What we're talking about here is a specific organization that's now around the world in its scope, that has announced they want to do us harm and kill as many Americans as possible; that has technology to support them and has some very intelligent people. ... That is the enemy, and that is who we're fighting, and we've got to always keep our focus on that. ...

+ Phil Mudd


Deputy head, FBI's National Security Branch

+ Read the full interview

If you're looking for people who have some direct connection to a central Al Qaeda leadership, ... very few people like that [are] around. If you move further out from that center of Al Qaeda, ... you're talking about many people, I would say, some just kids who are going in the wrong direction, who have never met a real Al Qaeda member and who have never been at a camp, but they believe. ...

When I think about these problems, the things I think about are not always concerns about guns or bombs; they're concerns about ideas, and how ideas are being spread to people who have never touched an Al Qaeda member, but who believe. That's what I'm worried about, and that's why I'm not giving you as precise a definition. ...

... What you're worried about and what you're trying to do is prevent that ideology from motivating people to do anything.

I don't think the mission of the FBI is an ideological mission. Somebody else has to worry about ideas and how to prevent those ideas from spreading around the world -- the idea of violence to further a political end. I worry about people who are going to commit a crime and what to do about them. Ideology is key, because that's what inspires them, but it's not my job to stop people reading stuff on the Internet. ...

... The director of the FBI [Robert Mueller] includes many groups as terrorists. Is the real threat Islamic radicals?

Having been at the bureau now for getting on a year, I think you could see gradations of threat, places where we spend more resources or fewer. But to say black and white that Al Qaeda is a threat and someone like a white supremacist is not ... -- I can tell you ... that they don't reach the level in terms of threat to this country as we see from other organizations, but I can't tell you they don't pose a threat. Oklahoma City showed they did.

[9/11 Commissioner] Tom Kean said what they [the 9/11 Commission] were concerned with was organized groups of Islamic extremists.

I agree with part of this: The lion's share of our resources is and should be focused on the biggest threat. The biggest threat are cells of people who have a similar ideology, might have access to special weapons, certainly are inspired in the way those hijackers were inspired. ... But at the same time, if you look at people who are destroying property and threatening federal buildings, as McVeigh did in the past, who [are] you going to call? Somebody's got to do that work, because a lot of those crimes, a lot of those organizations, are a federal problem. ...

We have a focus on the Muslim community, not on McVeigh's ethnic group.

I'm not sure I would make a distinction the same way you do. ... When you talk about focus on ecoterrorists and white supremacists, it's a different kettle of fish. But white supremacists, I'm looking at a pool of people who believe in racial holy war, a pool of people who often come from skinhead backgrounds, who group together. So I do believe there are ways to look at them, ways to categorize them, that are significant. ...

+ Amy Zegart

Author, Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS and NSC

Are there sleeper cells ... here in the US?

I don't know whether there are sleeper cells in the United States, but I don't think the FBI does either. ... I've spent four years looking at 9/11, and the missed opportunities that our intelligence agencies had. And I found that there were 23 different operational opportunities that the CIA and the FBI had and missed to penetrate the 9/11 plot. Twenty-three. They went 0 for 23. That suggests to me that there's something fundamental that's broken. ...

You really think they're that incompetent?

I think the FBI is exceptional at what it's always done, for 80 years, which is catching criminals. The business of becoming a domestic intelligence agency is fundamentally different. What the FBI is really good at is focusing on the past, solving the past crime, but preventing future events takes an entirely different set of skills, and the FBI just isn't an intelligence agency. ...

... Is there a serious threat of WMD, of nuclear or biological attacks?

Yes. I think the single most worrisome threat is the combination of terrorism with weapons of mass destruction, and I say that because, if you look at the simple laws of supply and demand, it's only a question of time.

In terms of supply, it's never been easier to build a nuclear device. ... Today, instructions for building a rudimentary nuclear bomb are available on the Internet. We know that fissile material, ... is widely available also; there are enough stockpiles in -- of weapons grade fissile material in 50 different countries to build 300,000 nuclear bombs.

So there is plentiful supply. On the demand side, we know from bin Laden's statements that he considers the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, a religious duty. When you have that supply and demand, it's only a matter of time before these things come home to roost.

I understand the possibilities, they're fearsome. What's the reality of it? Do we have any information anyone has ever attempted to sneak such a bomb or some components of it into the United States?

Not that I know of, but we can't base our expectations of the future on what hasn't happened in the past. What our government has to do, to protect us, is to consider what's the worse case scenario that would affect the most lives in the country, and how can we prevent that from happening?

The other day I came across a quote by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, who said, to paraphrase him, I'm no stranger to the threat of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, but I have never, never been more worried about the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States than I am today. And he said this a couple of years ago. So I think it's a real concern in the intelligence and the defense community. ...

... This question of the reality of the threat: ... Are we overreacting?

I don't know what we're overreacting, but we are funneling money in an inefficient way. And the classic example of this is aviation security. It has received 10, 20 times the amount of funding since 9/11, relative to port security. If you look at aviation security, after 9/11, we were made much more safe by two things: reinforcing cockpit doors, and letting all Americans know that if a plane is hijacked, you storm the cockpit and try to crash it into the ground, so it can't go into a building. All the other stuff at airports -- taking your shoes off, the dogs, all that -- is a lot of wasted money. ...

What we need is a strategy that says: here are the targets in the United States that are likely to be most attractive to terrorists; here are the targets that are the most vulnerable; and here, among those targets, are the ones that are most likely to cause catastrophic levels of damage if they're attacked. And I don't think we have a guiding strategy that has really forced Congress, in particular, to be smart about how we spend our money. ...

+ Salam Al-Marayati


Executive director, Muslim Public Affairs Council

+ Read the full interview

Is Al Qaeda here, in the United States?

I have not seen Al Qaeda here. ... [M]y sense is that Al Qaeda has no legitimacy, has no presence in the United States, and if anything, the Muslim-American community has rejected Al Qaeda and that the cooperation by Muslim Americans with law enforcement has been a major factor in preventing another 9/11 from happening. What we want to do is to enhance that relationship so that we could help, in partnership with law enforcement, to prevent another terrorist attack from taking place against our country and to protect our country.

You say there's no Al Qaeda here, but a year ago in California, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento and the head of the FBI said that they had found Al Qaeda in Lodi, Calif., a network of people. And similarly, around that same time in Los Angeles, there was a group of Muslims inspired by Al Qaeda.

And the Miami Seven case as well -- that was represented as another case of Al Qaeda wanting to attack Chicago. ...

There's a big difference between those three cases, for example, and the U.K. terror plot [foiled in August 2006]. The U.K. terror plot was in its implementation stages, and the plot was foiled mainly because of a responsible Muslim-British citizen coming forward and talking with law enforcement and providing valuable information to them that led to the investigation and foiling the plot.

In these other cases, there are more questions that surround the cases than answers that would clearly demonstrate a link or connection with Al Qaeda or, more importantly, that these individuals and groups, in those three cases, represented a clear and imminent threat to the United States. ...

... [Is there any danger of Al Qaeda creating a branch here in the United States, in California?]

…There's definitely not an imminent danger of Al Qaeda growing in the United States. There's a strong condemnation of Al Qaeda throughout the Muslim-American community. If Al Qaeda is going to get any attraction, it's usually with a lunatic, if anything, or with people who have already had criminal behavior in the past. Let's face it: A terrorist is a criminal, and they have to be a criminal to commit acts of terrorism. They may use religion to justify terrorist activity, but it's the criminal segment of our society that we need to look at in terms of dealing with all crimes. ...

But is there an Al Qaeda network in mosques and Muslim schools and Muslim institutions? No, it's not there. We don't see it happening any time soon, and we are working diligently to prevent that from ever happening. That's why we're so concerned about the alienation and the ghettoization of the Muslim-American community. Right now the ghettoization does not exist, but we should work very hard and double our efforts in preventing the ghettoization of the Muslim-American community.


Because ghettoization is also a factor, like we see in Europe, for disenfranchisement and anger and frustration, and we do not want to replicate the situation in Europe vis-à-vis the Muslim-American community here in America. Right now, America is very different from Europe. There is integration. There is an acceptance of Muslim Americans throughout the American public. The American public is very compassionate and wants to understand the Muslim-American community.

But as we see more hostility toward Muslim Americans by these self-styled experts on terrorism, by the counterterrorism industry, then there's going to be more alienation and frustration that may create this sense of the Muslim-American ghetto, which has a number of social harms -- not necessarily terrorism, but [it] might lead to further radicalization in the community, and that's one thing that we want to prevent. ...

+ Art Cummings


Special agent in charge of counterterrorism and intelligence, FBI Washington, D.C. field office.

+ Read the full interview

... [There was an] FBI analysis that there was no Al Qaeda sleeper cell in the U.S. True?

There is no information to show there is one. ... The better language would be we know of no Al Qaeda network in the United States. That's not a semantics issue, and that's not a little issue. Could there be? There could be. They would have to really overcome a lot of countermeasures that have been employed in the United States to get here and operate the way the 9/11 group did. ...

... Has anyone ever been arrested for putting a nerve agent or conspiring to put a nerve agent in a subway system? ...

No, there hasn't. There are a number of reasons for that that are logical. It's easier to do conventional attacks.

Has anyone been identified trying to bring fissile material into the U.S., or trying to assemble a weapon?

Well, you'd have to have the material here in the United States to do that. No. It's so difficult.

You can see why some people say maybe we have overreacted.

I don't think so. I can't see that. Maybe I'm biased. Maybe I've been doing this too long. I do not understand that perspective at all. ... Since Sept. 11, had there not been a Lackawanna, a Portland, a Northern Virginia, Southern California, Northern California, ... many others, had those not happened, then you have a great argument. Those are people that are organizing and taking action to move in the direction of murdering Americans simply because of what they think and [what] government policies are. ...

+ Karen Greenberg


Executive director, NYU Law School's Center on Law and Security

+ Read the full interview

[9/11 Commissioner] Tom Kean said to us the real nightmare is a WMD attack; that's what we really should be worried about. In the cases that the Justice Department has brought, what role does WMD play in those cases?

None. I can answer that very quickly because, if you look at [the Justice Department's] own report on cases since 9/11, ... they have a section on WMDs, and in that section on WMDs, they highlight four cases. Those four cases are about very amorphous, opaque cases, but they're mostly silly in the sense that one of them is a guy wearing a [ricin] necklace ... around his neck and being classified as a WMD menace. ... We're not finding Islamic terrorism WMD cases that are coming to the fore -- even by the Department of Justice's own report. So I agree with you: WMDs are the issue, and, for whatever reasons, they don't seem to be coming through the courts.

And do we see any ... WMD -- that is, fissile material or people with plans -- ... coming into the United States?

Not that I know of, but that doesn't mean there aren't cases that we don't know of that might not have come through the courts. There are a number of cases that are, in the categorization of the Department of Justice report, hoaxes. There's some actually rather interesting cases, one in particular over the Mexican border, where they really thought there was a WMD threat. I think you have to pursue those things, and you have to be willing to have cases that, [upon] investigation, have failed. I don't want to say that there are no WMDs and we shouldn't be watching out for them, but ... however you want to interpret that, we're not finding them. ...

... From your perspective, do you think that Al Qaeda is here in the United States? Do you think that there are terrorists among us?

There may be some dangerous terrorists among us. Compared to the rest of the world? No. Europe is a good example. Compared to Europe, we don't have the volume of potential terrorists in terms of the populations that they seem to be coming from, and we don't have the evidence of the kind of plots that Europe has on a monthly basis, and the kinds of convictions they're able to get, because they do have people who are plotting constantly, across borders, internally. You can read these statistics two ways: Either we're incompetent, which I don't think we are, ... or the terrorist menace as we've conceived it is not here. ...

You're saying that if there's an enemy within the United States, it may be ourselves?

Well, I think that we've done great harm to ourselves, I definitely think that, and we've done harm in the way we've put pressure on the judicial system without having open discussions about it or any sense of accountability about what they've actually accomplished. ... We've harmed our sense of who we are. We are not a population ruled by fear. We're a population that accepts risk. ... We allow for mistakes and for bad guys, but we don't turn ourselves into a fearful, suspicious population. When we've done it, in the Cold War and in other times, we've made fun of it afterwards. We've regretted it afterwards, and we will regret this afterwards.

We'll regret these prosecutions?

We will regret the way the war on terror has come to dominate our domestic life, and the prosecutions are part of that. ... We may be involved in a global war on terror, but we're still a country separate unto ourselves, and that's one of the things that we've lost a sense of.

I can hear someone ... [say] you don't get it; the rules did change, not because we wanted to change them but because Sept. 11 changed them. People came from outside to the United States and carried out the biggest terrorist attack in the history of the world right here, and they might do it again.

They might. Our job is to prevent them from doing it in the smartest way possible. And the smartest way possible is having the absolute best intelligence agencies and being connected to the other prosecutors and intelligence agencies around the world so that we know ... who the threat is, where they are and what they're going to do to us.

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posted oct. 10, 2006

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